Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Creating a Sporting Chance? A Query into the UN Agenda on Sport for Development and Peace

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By Kate Henne

Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Image from

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Image from

Many readers may not know that sport is considered a human right. In 1978, UNESCO described sport and physical education as a “fundamental right for all,” acknowledging that everyone should have access to and the ability to participate in sport, play, and physical activity.

Despite this long-standing recognition, the UN took little action in this space – that is, until fairly recently. Within current UN agendas, sport emerges as a tool for development, one that, according to advocates, can support all of the Millennium Development Goals.

In 2003, the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace defined sport, at least in relation to development, to include “all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being, and social interaction, such as play, recreation, organised or competitive sport, and indigenous sports and games.” In 2008, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 63/135. Entitled “Sport as a means to promote education, health, development and peace,” the Resolution established an international working group on sport for development and peace and a Special Adviser hosted by the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP).

The duties of the UN Special Adviser – currently Mr Wilfried Lemke, who has a background in professional football and politics – fall under a few key responsibilities.

Wilfried Lemke with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Wilfried Lemke with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Image from

These responsibilities are:

to promote sports as an instrument for development and peace both within the United Nations system and externally, and to encourage the establishment of partnerships in this area. There are many high-quality projects underway that use sport as a vehicle to promote development and peace. These must, however, function cohesively in order to be effective.

The sport-for-development movement, however, is not a uniform crusade under the direction of the UNOSDP. It is a loosely bound network at best. An array of diverse actors and objectives fall under its umbrella. In addition to the UN, sports and non-governmental organisations, national governments, private sector companies, and even the armed forces have all contributed to sport-for-development efforts. Specific programs target a range of issues related to racial and ethnic discrimination, gender inequality, economic growth, disability, crime prevention, peacekeeping and reconciliation, as well as HIV/AIDS and other health-related afflictions.

Aware of the many actors operating in this space, I did not know what to expect when I attended the 3rd International Forum on Sport for Development and Peace at the UN Headquarters in New York this past June. One theme became clear quickly: the tropes of regulatory ritualism, a key concern of Professor Hilary Charlesworth’s ARC Laureate Fellowship Project ‘Strengthening the international human rights system: rights, regulation and ritualism,’ were patently evident.

As employed in the ARC Laureate Project, regulatory ritualism includes “formal participation in a system of regulation while losing sight of its substantive goals.” Thus, documenting “techniques of ritualism employed in the international human rights system” has the capacity to provide insight into “the weaknesses and failures of the system.”

With regard to the UN agenda on sport for development and peace, these issues crystallised particularly around the UN’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the global organisation responsible for overseeing the Olympic Games and promoting the Olympic Movement more generally. The stated goal of the Olympic Movement is “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

In pursuing this goal, the IOC has reportedly amassed over US $8 billion in the last quadrennium (2009-2012) and received significant negative attention around the issues of athletes’ rights and athletes speaking out for the rights of others. For example, the IOC has forbidden athletes from protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws in the lead-up to and during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. This recent development is part of a longstanding Olympic stance: many other scholars have documented the history of exclusionary and oppressive practices during the Olympics and the IOC’s role in enabling them.

Despite this track record, the IOC emerged as a key partner in the sport for development and peace movement at the International Forum. This is part of a strengthening relationship between the UN and the IOC over the last five years. In 2009, the IOC received UN observer status, and two UN General Assembly resolutions supported the 2010 Olympic Games as a way to promote peace through the promotion of the Olympic ideal and to uphold sport as a means to achieve inclusion (particularly for indigenous peoples) and long-term sustainability. The UN also endorsed the observance of the Olympic Truce, an international time of peace, during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, even as critics cited those Games as the most militarised to date. Thus, in many ways, the UN turns a blind eye to the IOC’s contribution to the human rights concerns that the UNOSDP claims to counteract.

The 3rd International Forum on Sport for Development and Peace was in many ways a celebration of the UN-IOC partnership, beginning with a ceremony to open a permanent sports exhibition at the UN Headquarters and ending with a call for a UN-sponsored International Day of Sport and Physical Activity. It was also laden with other formal rituals, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon receiving the Olympic Order.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former IOC President Jacques Rogge launching the permanent sports exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York Image from

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former IOC President Jacques Rogge launching the permanent sports exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York
Image from

The ritualistic nature of the Forum not only depicted an exalted sense of the sport for development and peace movement’s achievements (even though the benefits of using sport as a development tool are not yet clear), but also discursively appealed to Olympic interests. For instance, Olympic sports often surfaced as the vehicle for enlightenment for marginalised peoples, even as participants recognised the existence of other indigenous sports. In fact, in one case, a speaker encouraged the choice of an Olympic sport similar to an indigenous sport as a way of gaining buy-in from participants. The only clear benefits that emerged from the example, however, seemed to be the athletes’ satisfaction in competing in a sporting event. I mention this not to minimise the pleasure of participating in sport, but to highlight how it is a far cry from delivering the tangible development outcomes purported at the Forum.

The legacies of the London Olympics, which aimed to deliver sport-specific, cultural, economic, and environmental benefits, received significant attention, as did the establishment of the first Olympic Youth Development Centre in Zambia. The discussion neglected how the London Olympics also resulted in the relocation of many local residents to make room for facilities and how the London revival of the Olympic Project for Human Rights took a strong stand against the IOC’s economic practices. The Forum also failed to address important questions for the sport for development and peace movement, such as: What happens when the infusion of private donor funds into programming ends when mega sporting events move onto other parts of the world? According to some development specialists, the failure of some established organisations in Africa after the FIFA World Cup offer a case in point. Is program sustainability, then, inherently tied to Olympic corporatism?

These few examples only scratch the surface of the dilemmas and possibilities of the sport for development and peace movement. Albeit limited, they point to how human rights and development projects take shape against the backdrop of globalized inequality, one that is often more complicated than legal actors acknowledge. In the case of the UNOSDP, there is a general recognition of global inequality, particularly as it serves as the impetus for development interventions. Rather than critically engage the multiple implications of inequality in this space, regulatory ritualism directs attention away from them. In doing so, these forms of ritualism overshadow the practical challenges and difficult partnerships that inevitably arise in pursuing a lofty mandate at the international level.

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